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Remote work is also a matter of diversity and inclusion

Submitted by Amaris Elliott-Engel on Fri, 06/26/2020 - 16:20

This is a freelance piece I recently wrote for the Rochestser Business Journal:

As much of the working world embraces working from home due to COVID-19, Marisa Zeppieri says she feels a little bit of betrayal that previously many employers refused to provide that accommodation to people with disabilities or chronic illnesses.

“It’s archaic thinking that all positions happen in this 9 to 5 structure,” says Zeppieri, an author, speaker and founder of the LupusChick nonprofit providing support to other people with Lupus.

“You have many people with chronic illnesses or disabilities who are talented but there is no physical way that they can come into office 100 percent of the time, 9 to 5,” Zeppieri says. “With COVID, for me, the whole thing has been bittersweet. In one sense, I am really excited about these great changes that will hopefully impact people who are disabled and chronically ill. You also get a little hint of betrayal when you’re told so often that positions available in your line of work have to be 100 percent in the office but then you see” how employers migrated their workforce to work from home in just a few days due to COVID-9.

Zeppieri says that the number of positions that are now available remotely compared to a year ago are “unbelievable,” and she foresees a lot more opportunity for people who are disabled, chronically ill or have other reasons to work from home.

“If you are disabled or chronically ill you have to ask yourself was it just they didn’t want to go the extra mile” when these kinds of flexible work options weren’t as widely available before, Zeppieri adds.

Calvin Eaton, the founder of 540WMain, a community-based organization that promotes justice for all and who has fibromyalgia, says he does feel optimistic that people with disabilities and chronic illnesses will benefit from a shift in workplace culture that finds that having people work from home is working out fine.

“I do think that there is a lot of ableism that goes on professionally,” Eaton says. “I am happy that tone is changing. The fact it took a pandemic to force us to have real conversations about this speaks to the barriers to how much further we have to go in this culture to see disabled individuals as whole people who bring value and experience.”

Jeiri Flores, a local disability rights advocate who works for an area university, says that being able to work from home every day has had several benefits for her disability.

Flores, who uses a power chair to get around, says that there are multiple reasons that being able to work from home has improved her life.

“During this COVID time it has really canceled out a lot of issues I have had navigating my workday,” Flores says.

Wintertime is the “prison season” for her, Flores says, because she can’t guarantee that her home and her workplace entrances will be adequately shoveled for her to be able get in and out.

Flores also says that she is at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and it’s important to be able to work from home at this time to protect her health.

Flores also says that transportation for many people with disabilities is an issue because there is limited public transportation in the Rochester area and she has to pay for someone to drive her to and from work because she does not drive. Working from home and meeting with people over Zoom also has been a relief because she is not having to travel to multiple meetings at different sites during the day and paying a great expense to do so, she adds.

“Everything for people with disabilities is super expensive,” Flores says. “It’s called the disability tax.”

Flores said that she also thinks she works harder from home than she ever has in the office.

Allowing employees to work from home and to work feasible schedules has shown employers that employees with disabilities and chronic illnesses “are still able to be vibrant and efficient members of their workforce,” Flores says.

Some employees had “already decided and deemed what people with disabilities can do,” Flores says. “You wouldn’t allow me to have this accommodation because you couldn’t see what I could bring to your company. Now that it is your only solution, now that you see (working from home) in a whole new light, you’re impressed and think that this can be your new norm.”

Flores notes that opening up work-from-home options and flexible hours will change the opportunities for people with disabilities to become employed. She notes that many people with disabilities are living off disability payments, which typically only pay $800 or $900 a month.

“It’s really about leadership pushing themselves to think outside of the box,” Flores says. “It’s about pushing the envelope on what traditional work looks like.”

Luke Wright, a partner at Harter Secrest & Emery who practices in the area of labor and employment, says that “sometimes employers would look at requests to work from home skeptically. There may have been some skepticism about productivity and employers thought some of the essential functions of the job need to be in person. A lot of employers have been surprised how easy the transition has worked and how many employees are able to maintain productivity without physically being in the office and how alternatives have been found for many of the functions thought to be essential.”

Wright also notes that the increased openness to have employees work from home or have flexible hours also may benefit people who want to work from home due to their family situation or their caregiving responsibilities.

Eaton says that opening up workplace culture to allow working from home on a regular basis and allowing for flexible hours is not just about diversity and inclusion but a matter of equity and justice.

“When organizations are starting to really look internally and say, ‘What are our values? Who are we excluding?’ Sometimes the way you’re being as an organization can be so one dimensional and you’re in tunnel vision,” Eaton says. “The disability community has huge spending power. When you look at it across sectors, genders, races there are people who are not part of the conversation until they need to be. If these folks were included at the table, reached out to, we know it will behoove these organization to tap into that sector. They will buy the product. They will buy the service. They will support the organization.”

Amaris Elliott-Engel is a Rochester-area freelance writer.


Sixth Circuit Upholds Disabled Girl's Use of Miniature Horse

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled that an Ohio woman can pursue a claim that Blue Ash, Ohio, discriminated against her disabled daughter by banning her from keeping a miniature horse as a service animal, The Wall Street Journal's Jacob Gershman reports. Ingrid Anderson claims the city's ban on people keeping farm animals within municipal limits violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. Anderson further argues the city should make a reasonable accommodation to allow her family to keep the miniature hourse.

Supreme Court Finds Police Immune from Suit in Shooting of Mentally Ill Woman

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that police are immune from being sued over the shooting of a mentally ill woman in San Francisco, the Associated Press reports. While the shooting victim Teresa Sheehan said the police should have made reasonable accommodations for her under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the court said that it was not taking up that question because it hadn't been fully considered by the lower courts.

The court's decision is here:

People with Disabilities Fight Wisconsin Budget Changes

People with disabilities are fighting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's proposed changes to long-term managed care in the state's budget, The Marshfield News-Herald's Liz Welter reports. They are concerned that changes to managed care would trade a community-centered system with a state-wide approach run by out-of-state insurance companies. They also are concerned that the autonomy the current system gives them to direct how some of their care is carried out would be eliminated.

The Consequences of Community Care After Supreme Court Ruling

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that two Georgia mental health patients are entitled to care in the community, there has been a push by the U.S. Department of Justice to move patients out of state hospitals, The Augusta Chronicle's Tom Corwin reports. Transfers from institutional to community settings can't be carried out over the opposition of patients, if their placements can't be reasonably accommodated or if patients wouldn't be able to benefit from being out in the community.

There have been unintended consequences of the court ruling in Georgia. The state has not been meeting patient-care standards and there have been a number of unexpected deaths in community-care homes, Corwin reports. U.S. District Judge J. Leon Holmes ruled 3.5 years ago that the Justice Department was seeking to enforce patients being moved to community settings even though parents and guardians of patients hadn't asked for it.

Corwin found that the death rates for patients in long-term care in the community is higher and that many parents fear that "patients will not receive a comparable level of care in the community, and particularly for the many medically fragile patients, this could prove fatal." 

Gov. Walker Plans to Slash Autonomy in Long-Term Care for the Disabled

Disability rights advocates in Wisconsin are dismayed about a plan that would eliminate the autonomy that people with disabilities have to self-direct some of the money expended by the state government for their care. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has put forth a plan for long-term care for people with disabilities that would lead "the Department of Health Services to cease operation of other long-term care programs or waivers, including IRIS — a program for self-directed long-term care. IRIS currently has more than 11,000 participants, who choose the program because of their ability to self-direct their supports, including hiring their own caregiver," The Capital Times' Jessie Opoien reports.

CA Supreme Court Expands Disclosure About Treatment Facilities

The California Supreme Court has ruled that health officials must provide more information about the citations given to facilities found to be lax in treating developmentally and mentally ill people, Sacramento Bee's Denny Walsh reports. The unanimous court ruled that the state Department of Public Health provided too little information in response to a public-records request about citations issued against the seven largest state-owned-and-operated treatment facilities, Walsh further reports. The DOH argued that another law required heavy redactions in order to protect the privacy of the patients, but the Supreme Court ruled that the state Long-Term Act was a special exception.

NYC Settles Disaster Preparedness Lawsuit for People with Disabilities

New York City has reached a settlement to provide better "evacuation and sheltering" for people with disabilities during disasters, according to the New York Law Journal. The lawsuit was filed after Hurricane Irene and then was punctuated by Superstorm Sandy. Judge Jesse Furman found the city liable for violating the American with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the New York City Human Rights law. The parties settled instead of going to trial over remedies.

NYC Settles Disaster Preparedness Lawsuit for People with Disabilities

New York City has reached a settlement to provide better "evacuation and sheltering" for people with disabilities during disasters, according to the New York Law Journal. The lawsuit was filed after Hurricane Irene and then was punctuated by Superstorm Sandy. Judge Jesse Furman found the city liable for violating the American with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the New York City Human Rights law. The parties settled instead of going to trial over remedies.

Read more:

Moving Into the World: When Kids with Disabilities Age Out of State Services

Submitted by Amaris Elliott-Engel on Sun, 05/04/2014 - 18:31

Hearst published a story (DNT20140426.pdf) I wrote about the lack of support young adults with disabilities and their families face after they age out of the public school system:

Jill Edelman’s daughter is 24, attended a boarding school on Cape Cod focused on special education, and now is living in an apartment with another young woman in Ridgefield and attending a day program that provides her with vocational opportunities.

Tucker Acocella’s son is 22 and attended a boarding school in the greater Boston area for people with visual handicaps. But Acocella’s son is now sitting at home alone every day, listening to the rock-and-roll music he loves.

Both Edelman’s daughter and Acocella’s son are young adults with disabilities. But once they age out of the public schools and the state’s legal obligation to provide them with an education, they found themselves on opposite sides of the law, which determines the eligibility for people with significant intellectual disabilities to receive services as adults.

The way those eligibility requirements play out can have serious consequences on families.

Edelman’s daughter is entitled to services because her IQ is low enough to qualify for services.

But Acocella’s son is not. His IQ was four points too high to qualify for services.

“Their motivation is to deny benefits, not to grant benefits,” Acocella says of the state Department of Developmental Services.

The success story for Edelman’s daughter is one that Edelman, a therapist who has written a book and blog about parenting a child with special needs, is very happy about. “One of the biggest concerns of a parent with a special needs young adult” is that they will regress if they are not exposed to new opportunities, stimulation and interaction with peers, Edelman said.

Young adults with disabilities of all types, both physical and intellectual are entitled to a public education up until around the age of 21. But then they and their families have to transition out of the public school system.

The cut-off age for receiving services from the state Department of Developmental Services is young adults, who at the age of 18, have a significant intellectual disability as measured by a standardized test and an IQ of 70 or lower. People with intellectual disabilities such as those on the autism spectrum or Prader-Willi syndrome can qualify, according to Thomas A. Dailey, a regional director for DDS.

After age 21 There is a whole group of people with disabilities who don’t meet the state criteria for assistance as adults because they are higher-functioning with an autism spectrum disorder or their IQ is above 70, said Lolli Ross, executive director of Abilis, which provides assistance to adults and children with developmental disabilities and their families in lower Fairfield County and parts of Westchester County.

But they still need support in daily life and can’t live completely independently, she said.

One such person is Sean Pultz, 28, who has autism. When he aged out of the system, he was highfunctioning enough that he did not qualify for assistance, yet he was unable to get a job or live on his own.

He is now about to graduate, cum laude, from Western Connecticut State University in Danbury with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts. Although he is able to live on his own, he still requires significant help.

The cost of teaching Sean the interpersonal and life skills he needed to be able to attend school has been high for his parents, both in terms of the time and money.

Sean’s mom, Marrietta Pultz, said they tried sending him to a year-long program after high school that was designed to teach him life and job skills, but he came out of it basically unemployable.

“He spent a year just sitting in his room,” Marrietta Pultz said.

At that point, Sean’s parents realized they had to somehow get him real job training. His functioning level had allowed him to find success performing as an actor from a young age — he has been performing with Stamford’s Curtain Call theater for years — so his social abilities were enough to build on.

They sent him to Gibbs College for a year, where with considerable support from his family, he was able to get far enough that he had the credits and life skills to enroll at Western, which has a special education class designed to help students like Sean.

He is now planning to parlay his Curtain Call experience and theater-related summer jobs and internships he’s had into an acting career. But it took six years, and many, many hours of support from his parents. And his parents will be left with tens of thousands of dollars in school loans.

But Sean Pultz’s story is an extraordinary one.

There are many other special needs adults who don’t qualify for ongoing services, and don’t have prospects for a full life.

In Connectiut, DDS provides support services to more than 21,000 Connecticut residents, including 16,000 adults, Dailey

said. In 2013, 400 people applied for DDS services, but he estimates that 50 or 60 were found ineligible.

Connecticut has a waiver where people with autism whose IQs are above 70 can still qualify for support from DDS, said Dailey and Nicholas Gelbar, a postdoctoral fellow with the University of Connecticut Health Center’s A.J. Pappanikou Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.

However, not everyone is helped by the waiver, advocates said.

Another issue facing young adults with disabilities is the lack of planning that sometimes occurs for preparing for their transition into adulthood and out of the school system.

“It should be a seamless transition” out of the public-school system into DDS services, said Abilis Executive Director Ross. But it often is not, she said, due to poor funding, poor planning or poor support from Connecticut school districts.

Without that planning, special needs children who are high-functioning enough to learn life and job skills may end up requiring extensive assistance for life, presenting a serious problem when their parents die, said Monica Schlessinger Smyth, director of family resources for Abilis.

Gelbar, who researches how to incorporate people with disabilities into post-secondary education, said that growing up presents the normal challenges for teenagers with disabilities as it does for any teenagers.

“Individuals with disabilities are individuals,” Gelbar said. “They are experiencing the normal transition that everyone experiences. Everyone has some difficulty with these transitions. What’s special about individuals with disabilities is that they have this extra need of support. Going through that transition, there are more particular challenges for them, if the transition isn’t dealt with in a systematic and structured way.”

Back when Sean Pultz was at Westhill High School in Stamford some 15 years ago, his parents discovered transition services by accident. They were attending a conference for special needs artists in their ongoing quest to feed their high-functioning son’s interest in acting and film, when they heard about a group based in Bethel called Ability Beyond that provides ongoing education and job training for people with disabilities.

It was only when they began working with Ability Beyond that they learned of a state agency, the Bureau of Rehabilition Services, that is tasked with helping families with the transition.

Some of the best practices in assisting young adults with disabilities to make the transition out of the school system and into adulthood is getting them work and volunteer experiences so they can envision themselves in those worlds and articulate what support they would need to be employed or go on to post-secondary education, Gelbar said.

Many times people with disabilities want to live individually, Dailey said, which can be less expensive than living in a group home. Paying for someone to live in a group home costs an estimated $130,000 a year, and allowing higher functioning people to live on their own rather than in a group home allows another Connecticut resident who may not have other options to live there, Dailey said.

“What we want is for everyone to live self-determined lives … and that we afford them the opportunities to make choices,” said Marie Bennett, DDS director of individual and family support services.

Acocella, who is a single parent, said he is very concerned about his son’s future. His son not only has congenital glaucoma that has pretty much taken away all of his sight, but also has an intellectual disability.

Because his IQ was four points higher than the state’s cut-off, the only help Acocella said he has gotten from the government in transitioning his son from boarding school to adult life has been limited to a four-month program paid for by the state Department of Rehabilitation Services’s Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind.

Acocella’s son is now living away from him in a program to teach him some skills of independent living like cooking, managing money and doing household chores.

Besides volunteering at a local gas station and taking a music class in Bethel, Acocella’s son stays at home, he said.

“What happens if I die?” Acocella asks. “What happens to my son? Who takes care of him?”

Edelman, while her daughter is living independently and is receiving support from the government, also is worried about her daughter’s future when she and her husband pass away.

“The fact is she is vulnerable to much larger powers (including) government funding, federal and state,” Edelman said. “Hopefully, long after we’re gone, she’ll still be protected by these.”



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